STEVE INSKEEP, host:
We have a story now about what happened when a businessman got angry. He felt that injured American military personnel were not getting all the help they needed. He focused on troops with traumatic brain injury, or TBI. Pentagon advisors recommend a treatment called cognitive rehabilitation, but military insurance doesn't pay for it. Now, a billionaire is paying. T. Christian Miller of ProPublica reports, along with NPR's Daniel Zwerdling.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: This is not official policy, but here's what some officers in the Marine Corps and Army have told us privately: When one of your troops has a brain injury, want to know where they should go for treatment? Not a military medical center or the VA. No. You should send them to a private rehab program in Atlanta, Georgia. They call it Project Share. You'll meet the billionaire who founded it in a moment.
(Soundbite of car door shutting)
Unidentified Woman: Guys, we're here until about 2:15 in order to be back in time for the next therapy session. OK?
ZWERDLING: It's just after noon, and the therapists from Project Share have taken a few of their troops with TBIs to a warehouse. A non-profit group here fixes wheelchairs for low-income people. And a veteran named Ashley Craft is going to help. It's part of his treatment. The supervisor at this repair shop, Lewis Templeton, shows Craft a beat-up, motorized cart.
Mr. LEWIS TEMPLETON (Supervisor of Repair Shop): Well, we're going to start you off kind of - well, I know you know more than what I'm going to give you, but this guy right here where, it says this needs new front tires, want to do that one?
ZWERDLING: Project Share is not even three years old, and brain specialists say it's already one of the top rehab programs for troops. Therapists in the military and VA often treat troops with TBIs in a clinic. The troops play memory games on computers, things like that. Project Share teaches troops out in the real world.
Mr. ASHLEY CRAFT (Veteran): Do you have a flat-head I can borrow?
Mr. TEMPLETON: There is one right here.
ZWERDLING: Ashley Craft was a Marine mechanic in Iraq. He fixed giant military trucks, until the explosion four years ago. Then Craft came home to South Carolina, and he couldn't wrap his brain around tuning up an old car.
Mr. CRAFT: I started taking stuff apart, and I took a look at it the next day and didn't have a clue what the parts were, where they come from. It was just it was a mess.
ZWERDLING: Researchers say you can't actually fix the brain cells and circuits that get damaged by your TBI. But if you give patients what's called cognitive rehabilitation, you can teach them to compensate.
NPR and ProPublica have found that most military and VA programs don't give comprehensive cognitive rehab. For instance, they typically give troops with brain injuries a few hours of treatment each week. Here at Project Share, the troops go to rehab all day, every day, five days a week. Craft starts to take a wheel off the cart.
Mr. CRAFT: Yeah. This right here is aggravating as hell, right here.
ZWERDLING: Meanwhile, one of the therapists from Project Share was watching. Sarah Bonham says this repair shop is a perfect classroom to retrain Craft's brain.
Ms. SARAH BONHAM (Therapist, Project Share): It integrates so many different parts of the therapy, you know, doing things in the right order, remembering different safety precautions, all of those things. Those are big cognitive tools.
ZWERDLING: Craft stretches. He's finished changing the tires. And he smiles, barely.
Mr. CRAFT: You're not the way you used to be. And that's it's really tough to grasp that concept. I used to think I was pretty good, you know. And now I've got to use a lot of adaptive equipment to even be half as good as I used to be. But, that's my life now.
ZWERDLING: The investigation by NPR and ProPublica has found there could be tens of thousands of veterans like Ashley Craft. So far, Project Share has treated only 70 of them. But the way Bernie Marcus tells the story, he could help the Pentagon treat a lot more troops with TBIs if the top brass would work with him. Oh, who's Bernie Marcus? He cofounded a chain of stores.
(Soundbite of commercial)
Unidentified Man (Announcer): More saving, more doing. That's the power of the Home Depot.
ZWERDLING: In other words, Bernie Marcus is rich. And when he heard that troops with brain damage were struggling to get good treatment, he could do something about it. And three years ago, Marcus gave more than $2 million to the Shepherd's Center in Atlanta. It's one of the top brain rehab hospitals in America. He told them: I want you to set up Project Share just to help troops and vets. Then Marcus met with officials from the Army and the VA.
Mr. BERNIE MARCUS (Co-founder, Home Depot): I just said I just said that these kids have to be taken care of, and if you're not doing the job that you should be doing, we can help you.
ZWERDLING: Marcus told the officials if you send troops to Project Share, I will help pay for their rehab. The officials thanked him, and then he didn't hear from them again. And Marcus says: You know what he would tell them now?
Mr. MARCUS: These kids put their lives on the line. Shouldn't you be involved in trying to get the best care for them? And why aren't you? How pathetic is that?
ZWERDLING: But change in the military and VA doesn't always come from the top. Low-level officers throughout the country started hearing about Project Share, and they quietly started sending troops to Atlanta for treatment.
(Soundbite of horse)
ZWERDLING: It's 10:30 on a Wednesday morning, and that means the troops at Project Share have gone to the stables.
Mr. BOBBY MCKINNEY (Veteran, Project Share Participant): Katie girl, what'd you roll in the dirt? We've got to go groom you.
ZWERDLING: When you meet troops like Bobby McKinney at first, they don't seem like they have brain injuries. But spend five minutes, and you'll hear it. McKinney had to retire from the Marines last year because of the explosions.
Mr. MCKINNEY: First deployment to Iraq was in...
ZWERDLING: He's still trying to remember.
Mr. MCKINNEY: Sorry, it takes me a minute - 2005.
ZWERDLING: The troops at Project Share come to Chastain Horse Park a few hours every week. It's another form of cognitive rehabilitation. They have to learn to read emotional cues - in this case, horses' emotional cues. They have to learn to make judgments.
So Bobby, maybe you could describe to our listeners what you're doing.
Mr. MCKINNEY: I try to just do normal strokes and go with the grain of the hair at first, just to make sure she's taking it she's tolerating it OK today, and it's not bothering her.
ZWERDLING: A therapist from Project Share, Bonnie Schaude, looks at McKinney proudly. She says when McKinney came to Project Share barely one month before, his brain couldn't focus. He'd get lost trying to go home. He could never have brushed a horse and talked with me, all at the same time.
He couldn't have done that?
Ms. BONNIE SCHAUDE (Therapist, Project Share): No, it would have been incredibly hard. And actually, probably two or three weeks ago he would have opted not to have you guys coming into the session.
Mr. MCKINNEY: This program is awesome. It seems that I have gotten more help and made more progress than in the last three years in the Marine Corps and in the last year that I've been in the VA system just in these well, it's not even been three weeks yet.
ZWERDLING: Bobby McKinney, working to get better at Project Share.
For NPR News, I'm Daniel Zwerdling.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: Learn more about Project Share at npr.org and at propublica.org.
You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.